Saturday, March 05, 2011

A brief tale about customer service

Last week I happened to pick up a Network Rail Customer Satisfaction survey that was being distributed, very unobtrusively, at Kings Cross, to Rush Hour commuters who had just got off their trains and were mostly in too much of a hurry to notice, let alone stop to fill in a form. Call me a cynic, but it was almost as if they didn't really want you to notice. As with any dealings I have had with NR, or indeed "my" train company First Capital Connect, it felt frustratingly remote. It is almost as if the guardians of the nation's vital arteries (if you'll pardon the analogy) will do everything in their power to avoid coming into real contact with the actual users of their services.

The trains have been pretty unreliable recently, and the experience awaiting the commuting hordes at Kings Cross even worse. The Powers That Be are continuing their campaign to prevent people from actually catching their trains, putting up barriers between platforms, and installing useless ticket barriers, only two of which are ever working, at the point of densest over-crowding. Meanwhile, the trains have been delayed, usually falling moments within the ten-minutes-late mark (which is the point at which you can ask for a refund - not that anyone would ever bother because the process of claiming one is so anachronistic and slow).

Trying to get any money out of the train companies (and I include Network Rail in this bracket), is like going back in time. No online facilities here - just loads of forms to fill in, forms which (wouldn't you just know it) can only be handed in at the station you travel from, necessitating a lengthy wait in a bad-tempered queue because the station is so short-staffed that only one window is open.

Should your train actually exceed that ten-minute lateness boundary, there is another obstacle course to negotiate. Obviously there is another form to fill in, but on top of that you have to write down exactly what time the train was scheduled, and exactly what time it actually arrived. Now, how likely is it that a commuter who is late already will have the time to stop, consult the timetable, compare it with the clock and then write the information down? Not very.

Paradoxically, when money is flowing in the opposite direction, they could not make it any easier, taking full advantage of every new technological development to make it easier for you to hand over your readies. Tickets can be purchased on your PC, your phone, possibly even by thought itself.

So, having picked up a questionnaire, I was looking forward to noting down a few choice observations about the service. Sadly, however, the document itself did not (and you may notice a theme emerging here) make it easy for me to do so. There were three sections. The first asked me about the specifics of my journey - was I arriving at Kings Cross, or departing; was I a regular commuter (to which one might respond - "Have you seen the state of the on-board toilets?" - but that's for another comedy routine); my age and gender. The next section asked me whether, if NR came up in conversation, would I commented very positively, slightly positively, etc. The third section allocated a very small space for "any other comments", and given that my handwriting is slightly bigger than Times New Roman font size 10, there wasn't room for many.

In my very first blog post - five years ago - I suggested that Kings Cross was turning into the Big Brother house, progressively harder to escape from. Now I'm beginning to think that it bears more resemblance to Catch 22.